Black History Month 2013: Reflections

As Black History Month draws to a close, I thought I’d share excerpts of my recent address to Carnegie Mellon, on Martin Luther King Day.  Some of these remarks are based on a few answers I provided on Quora in mid-January.  

….The US has regularly faced enormous, very difficult, sometimes colossally embarrassing challenges…but over the whole of its history, the US has managed to progress continually.  Consider what we, a nation born in the violence of the American Revolution, have overcome: institutionalized slavery, the Civil War, legalized segregation and the brutal racist legacy of Jim Crow…all leading to the election, and re-election of our nation’s first black president.  We have learned from our mistakes (before repeating them) and have eventually addressed our challenges, solving seemingly insurmountable problems in a manner that expands justice, rights and opportunity.  This is of course, not to say that we are done….for there is much more work to do, much more to accomplish, to change….

It is obviously an iterative process, where steps forward are answered with steps backward, sometimes giant steps backward…. Many things are or may seem worse today than they’ve ever been, progress may appear harder to achieve…, we seem prone at times to a very special kind of regression on social issues especially….but I believe all of that can, and will be overcome in a manner that benefits more citizens, not a small select group.   

Still, those of us who are racial minorities should remember, we are not today oppressed people in the way our parents and grandparents were, most of us are not demeaned or marginalized by the system—personally, I’ve had help at every turn, support in every way, have benefitted from the expansion of justice and enforcement of my rights under the law (and I’m certainly not the only black person for whom this has been the case)…. the many failings I’ve experienced on my path to whatever success I’ve achieved, are by and large my own failings, and not attributable to systemic injustices—so I cannot and will not blame my shortcomings on racial oppression–I can choose only to learn from them and to move forward…. 

We should be more interested in solving problems than assuming nothing can change, or moping about how hard things are, how unfair it is that blacks and other racial minorities are sometimes treated differently.  We should be more interested in taking a deep breath and advocating for possibility. 

Dwelling on what’s wrong, without advocating for change or developing and implementing solutions, doesn’t fix anything.  Dwelling on the negative undermines the efforts of those who have fought for various freedoms and achieved them.  Dwelling on what’s wrong and imperfect–gives an inappropriate excuse for not fighting for change….dwelling leads to despair which subjugates hope, that otherwise ultimate grease of effort and possibility.

And anyway, I’d rather be inspired by those of all races fighting for change, who are offended by continued racism where it occurs…than to obsess over cruelties and deprivations, believing falsely that their existence renders me incapable of achieving my potential, my capacity, of celebrating my humanity…..

There is little to no point in relishing in our perceived victimization…. There is zero point in complaining about all these injustices without committing ourselves to, and actually fighting for change.

As my grandfather used to say, he (or she) who plays the role of victim, will always be a victim, will be victimized further by virtue of their victimhood….all victims therefor have a moral obligation to overcome their victimization (and to avoid victimizing others in the process).  

We should not think less of ourselves or our country because of the violence, because of bigotry, because of our social challenges…, because there are some who are too ignorant to realize the ultimate futility of their hatred, or that there are some who fail to recognize that their hatred ultimately does more to harm them, that it does to harm targets of their vitriol.

We do not free ourselves from the scourge of violence, or racism or hatred by dwelling upon it irresponsibly… For to allow such control over our thoughts, our minds, is to subject ourselves to a form of slavery that is perhaps different from institutional slavery, but ultimately just as dangerous (if not moreso)…..

Still, it is imperative that among the social challenges we commit ourselves to, that we continue to discuss race, racism and its effect on our policy, our politics, individuals and our nation.  We must not table this discussion, treating race as something taboo, marginalizing it, assuming that it is something only racial groups themselves care about.  

There are a lot of things that happen on a daily basis that stink for non-white people living in the United States, (yes, there are things that stink for white people too)… There are things we experience that our white friends and colleagues perhaps don’t have to deal with, don’t have to experience–but there are strengths we possess by virtue of having to overcome that which others haven’t faced as well, there is confidence that is gained by virtue of having faced down and conquered that mighty wall of oppression, in refusing to succumb to planned deprivations and failed subjugation…., in perhaps having in some circumstances had to work harder….just to achieve our dreams. 

We can choose to internalize that hatred, to think worse of ourselves and to thereby debilitate our prospects–or we can externalize it, realizing it has nothing to do with us, and trust in our ability to overcome…. What good can come from running around complaining about how hard our lives are?  There’s too much work to be done!

It should be possible to acknowledge that racism exists in this country, to acknowledge our abundant imperfections, and to appreciate at the same time that there is something very special about this country’s ability to achieve progress, to inspire hope, to grow, to evolve, to change…. Disappointment in our transgressions and offenses, does not mean we cannot or should not be proud of, or love our country.  

We should be heartened that the proportion of people in the US who genuinely hold racist attitudes is shrinking (and we should be glad that most pernicious racists are not as often in positions of power, where they can use their authority to oppress and degrade minorities). 

To wit—racism means less and less as time progresses and as former would be “victims” of racism continue to ascend to positions of power and authority, provided of course that those individuals do not abuse their power and authority by, themselves, harboring intolerant views.

We must stop pretending that discussing race doesn’t matter, we must allow ourselves to get temporarily uncomfortable, to learn, to expand our hearts and minds.   We must endeavor to learn more about and understand each other’s experiences, backgrounds, cultures, histories… Because the more we understand….the more we see how much we have in common, the more compassion we might have for one another, the more trust among different people might grow, the better and more stronger our connections and relationships will be….

The more we share our vulnerabilities, the more likely we are to remove that sense of shame that so many feel because they are different, that deep, festering, debilitating wound of “otherness” that for some can become a debilitating habit of mind…..

The more we learn, the better our relationships will be… And the more we improve on each of these things…the more likely we will be able to solve the real problems confronting us in business and in policy, particularly our violent culture…and hopefully the healthier and stronger our nation will be.

I love living in a country that is responsive over the arc of history to efforts to expand justice, where I can freely speak my mind about injustices, where I can advocate for change, and expect, over time and with blood, sweat and tears to see positive results flow from my efforts…. in fact it may be that because of that love, I am inspired to help the US be its very best, to achieve its potential as a nation, to overcome its faults.  It is because of that love, and my faith in this country, that I know we can do much better than we have been doing, that we can overcome our proclivity towards violence and address lingering racism and social problems.    

But this love, this faith–is not an apology.  It is just love–plain and simple.

There is much that is in a name, and we in the United States, would be wise to remember that, lest we tragically forget who we are.  We cannot forget that we are the United States of America, joined together by common purpose, common cause…our fates inextricably linked, our destinies tied.  Inherent in our name is the notion that we share a common destiny, which requires the elevation of the common good….that it is the will of the people, we the people which matters most….Our common destiny, our common purpose requires us therefor to be willing to die to self, to lay down our lives for our friends, to preserve the whole.

Dr. King was just 39 years old when he was killed by a bullet, shot from a Remington Model 760 pump action rifle….  Then the same age I am now, he died a violent death in the pursuit of justice, not just for blacks, but for people of all colors…, he died a violent death fighting for our common humanity, for the expression of human dignity…

He seemed to understand, that so long as there was any individual in our country denied their dignity, that our country would not ever achieve its potential.  His, was the ultimate sacrifice for us.  So I ask you, what are we willing to do now? How are we willing to honor his sacrifice, not just today, but every day?….


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